Immigrant Rights Project: Advocating for Immigrant Communities
API Legal Outreach’s commitment to advancing the rights of immigrants is rooted in providing needed legal services for the diverse immigrant communities of the Greater Bay Area. API Legal Outreach has long been committed to immigrants’ rights and remains one of the few agencies providing direct legal services to immigrant victims of crime and their families. Our communities need more than just information about their rights: they need the expert legal representation that is critical to making those rights a reality. In 2013 alone, API Legal Outreach staff attorneys and panel of pro bono attorneys represented and counseled thousands of immigrants and their loved ones in immigration court, naturalization and adjustment hearings, and complex motions for relief for immigrants who had been abused by their citizen spouses, subjugated by human traffickers, or victimized by violent criminal activity such as attempted murder and rape.
I graduated high school and college in the United States. I have never been arrested or done anything against the law. Yet, I was always nervous around police officers. I use to make excuses and not go out with friends because I did not have an ID. I did not want people to find out I was undocumented. Even with a college degree, I have never been able to work at a real full time job because I had no work permit. Now, I can breathe. I am excited to work and help my mom. Your help changed my life.” – Client
Collaborative Approaches to Immigration Work
API Legal Outreach remains part of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network (SFILEN), a collaborative consisting of thirteen different agencies dedicated to providing direct services, education and outreach to the diverse immigration communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. To highlight its mission, SFILEN sponsors Immigrant Family Day, a day of advocacy and celebration at City Hall. In addition, API Legal Outreach is a member agency of the Collaborative Resources for Immigrant Services on the Peninsula (CRISP), consisting of several agencies also dedicated to providing legal services to immigrant communities in San Mateo County and the Peninsula. With the support of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, CRISP and several other immigration collaboratives launched conec.us, an online portal for volunteers seeking opportunities with local non-profits.
When President Obama first created the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program in 2012, allowing certain young adults who had arrived in the United States prior to the age of 16 to apply for work authorization and deferred action status, we were given a preview of what reform might mean. While this was far from a path to citizenship, the DACA program did test our communities’ ability to respond to a sudden and overwhelming need for competent immigration services. Teaming up with other non-profits, API Legal Outreach led or participated in many DACA fairs—successfully presenting information to young adults, screening for eligibility, and applying for DACA. Our Immigration Project joined with API Legal Outreach’s Youth Advisory Council youth project to help educate their peers about this great program. In addition to taking on direct legal representation, our immigration attorneys have organized and participated in dozens of free legal clinics and hosted trainings for pro bono attorneys.
Immigration Reform Today
Equally groundbreaking, the Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has allowed for same-sex marriages to be recognized by both the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State. This is the first time that American spouses can petition for their same-sex partners to join them in the United States. API Legal Outreach’s Immigration Project has been able to represent LGBTQ families affected by this positive change in the law in addition to educating the community on immigration relief for LGBTQ families.
Much of this past year was spent awaiting and preparing for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), long promised and long overdue. Last year, the United States Senate passed a CIR bill which was intended to address our broken immigration system but its was defeated by nonaction in the House of Representatives. If this bill or a similar bill becomes law, there will be an overwhelming need for free and low-cost immigration services. API Legal Outreach is part of several collaborative partnerships in which we are developing systems and technology in which all nonprofits can serve more clients and combat notorious fraud.
On the day of my oath ceremony to become a U.S. citizen, I remember being so happy that I cried. Even though I was born in Vietnam, I feel that my life is in America. I want to live the rest of my days here with my children and be buried here. Thank you API Legal Outreach for helping me become a U.S. citizen.” – Client of API Legal Outreach
API Legal Outreach joined with Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Centro Legal de la Raza, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Institute of the Bay Area, Korean Community Center of the East Bay, International Rescue Committee, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay as the East Bay Naturalization Collaborative (EBNatz) to provide naturalization services to the East Bay. This collaboration is the first broad based service to offer such multilingual assistance to those eligible for citizenship in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Over 500 applications will be prepared and processed with the help of these partner agencies during each year of the project.
New this year, San Francisco has created its own naturalization assistance project called the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative (SFPCI). Composed of API Legal Outreach, Self-help for the Elderly, La Raza Community Resource Center, Catholic Charities, International Institute of the Bay Area, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services, this collaborative has organized group assistance clinics offering free, multilingual assistance for anyone interested and eligible to apply for citizenship.
API Legal Outreach continued its work in partnership with the Pilipino Bayanihan Resource Center, Cannon Kip, Kimochi, as well as other senior-serving agencies on countless naturalization cases on behalf of seniors. Further, in partnership with agencies such as Self Help for the Elderly, API Legal Outreach attorneys have worked on dozens of naturalization cases that involve the disability waiver, which allows people with disabilities to gain US citizenship without taking the English or civics exam.
Encouraging and enabling citizenship conferred on our clients a greater degree of independence. By becoming U.S. citizens, recent immigrants take steps towards active civic participation, which, for many, meant voting in their first election. Moreover, as a practical matter, citizenship was a prerequisite to receiving entitlements such as SSI benefits, which, for many seniors, was often the only source of income. With the knowledge that the immigration and naturalization process is not only arduous but also costly, API Legal Outreach staff represented clients throughout the process.
In light of increased scrutiny on immigrants, including the deportation of long-term permanent residents for crimes and abandonment of legal permanent resident status, API Legal Outreach has dedicated itself to providing free and low-cost access to help non-citizens become naturalized U.S. citizens. With naturalization comes protection from removal from the United States, which is not guaranteed to even long-time permanent residents. Many of these immigrants are also elderly and have disabilities, and may become at risk of abandoning their legal permanent residency status when they travel abroad to seek medical treatment and care.
Advocating for the Rights of Survivors
“I can’t believe it is over and I have a green card. This was the last thing he could control in my life. My children and I can move on. Thank you for helping us for all this time.” – Client of API Legal Outreach
My husband and his entire family were always yelling and screaming at me that they would send me back to Afghanistan. I was so scared to go back there and be beaten by my own family for being abandoned by my husband. I also never thought that I would see my baby again. Although my life is still not perfect, I am happy to have my child back with the help of API Legal Outreach and my immigration papers fixed.” – Client of API Legal Outreach
API Legal Outreach has long focused on utilizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to assist immigrant survivors of crime and domestic violence. In addition to allowing battered spouses petition to remain in the United States without their abusers’ sponsorship, VAWA, along with the TVPA, created legal remedies such as U-visas and T-visas to assist immigrant victims of crime. Prior to VAWA, immigrant battered spouses had to either remain with their abuser in the U.S. or leave the abuser and risk deportation. Many had left everything in their home country behind—careers, schools, friends and family—to marry. For them, the trip was one way. Returning was not an option, so often they stayed, enduring horrific abuse and in many cases, fearing separation from their children should they leave.